Three Wishes

If you could have three wishes for your viva, what would they be?

I can imagine some possibilities…

  • …I wish that it wasn’t too long…
  • …I wish that my examiners would treat me fairly…
  • …I wish I could answer all of their questions…
  • …I wish I felt confident…
  • …I wish it was over!

Wishes don’t just manifest. Some parts of the viva you could have hope for, some things you can expect, and some things you can work towards making a reality. Rather than making wishes, find out realistic expectations for your viva – by asking people about theirs or talking to your university’s graduate school – and work on building up your confidence if you need to.

(unless you find a magic lamp, in which case wish away!)

Nine Noes For The Viva

No way your thesis is perfect.

No expectation it should be either.

No chance you’re not an expert in your research.

No way to predict exactly what will happen in the viva.

No excuse for not having expectations either (there are lots of people who have had them before!).

No examiner has lived through doing your research.

No possibility you got to submission without doing something good.

No way you can do the work without being talented.

No chance you’re not ready when the viva comes around.


There’s a mindset of exploration in viva preparation.

  • Exploring what you did: not simply reading your thesis, but digging into it.
  • Exploring what it means: reflecting on what you think now.
  • Exploring recent literature: updating what you know and what might matter.
  • Exploring your examiners: what they know and do.
  • Exploring the possibilities for the viva: what might or might not happen.

If you’ve done the work for a PhD, being an explorer is probably second nature to you. You’re good at exploring; to prepare well for the viva you just need to continue using skills you already have.

Answers On A Postcard

A viva prep idea that seems apt for summertime: use postcards to make notes about key reflective questions for your research and thesis.

Get half a dozen different postcards (choose your images carefully). Use half of each one to answer a big picture question like those below:

  • How did I get interested in this topic?
  • What’s my key contribution?
  • What are my three main results?
  • What is my methodology?
  • Who is my research important to?
  • What are my three most important references?

Use the other half, where one would typically write an address, to capture a few keywords, an extra short note or perhaps an important reference or two.


There are three useful elements here. First, the answer in a small, restricted space gives a concise reflection. Second, a few points or helpful things that jump out. Finally, the image of the postcard to build memory associations.

Index cards are often used to help with revising something, but I’ve never come across postcards. What do you think? Useful or not?

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

There’s a connection between how comfortable you are in the viva and how confident you are. I’ve written a lot before on getting comfortable with the thought of the kinds of questions you might get, but that’s not the full extent of what you can do to explore comfort and confidence for the viva. Instead of thinking in the abstract about process and possible questions, get really practical:

  • What is the room like? What’s the layout? What does it have in there that could be useful (whiteboard, flipchart etc)?
  • Where will the room’s windows be in relation to the sun during your viva?
  • What do you know about your examiners? How comfortable are you with your awareness of them and their work?
  • What are you wearing for the viva? How comfortable are you in that outfit?
  • What can you take with you or do on the day of the viva to make you more comfortable?

Answers are about comfort, but also lead in the direction of confidence. Your clothes can make you more confident; being sure about the viva room can make you more confident; being aware of your examiners can make you more confident.

Check Their Publications

You will know who your examiners are before the viva, but it’s possible you won’t know much about them. Not everyone has examiners they’ve cited or met before; you can’t strike up a conversation over coffee or email to get to know them, but you can check out their publications. Look at the last couple of years and see what they’ve done.

  • What’s the general area they’re interested in?
  • Are there topics that they return to again and again?
  • Is there a direction they are taking their research?
  • How do their ideas connect with your own?
  • What do you think their most important ideas or results are?
  • What do you need to know about their work that you don’t?

Explore what your examiners have published. See what it might mean to you and your work.

See how that can help you with your viva preparations.

Fourteen Faves

Quick exercise to get you reflecting on your whole PhD journey. What’s your…

  1. …favourite paper in your bibliography?
  2. …favourite discovery you made?
  3. …favourite meeting with your supervisor?
  4. …favourite conference talk you gave?
  5. …favourite question you’ve been asked?
  6. …favourite talk you attended?
  7. …favourite chapter of your thesis?
  8. …favourite sentence of your thesis?
  9. …favourite word you didn’t know when you started your PhD?
  10. …favourite thing you still don’t have an answer to?
  11. …favourite break from your PhD?
  12. …favourite place to work?
  13. …favourite time you made a breakthrough?
  14. …favourite contribution you’ve made to your field?

Your mind has collected a lot of neat stuff over the last few years. What stands out?

Thirty Minutes

Have you got thirty minutes to spare for your viva prep? In thirty minutes you can:

  • Read through a good chunk of a chapter;
  • Check a couple of references;
  • Make some notes about your examiners’ interests;
  • Create a list of interesting questions;
  • Add some annotation;
  • Reflect on what your research means.

There’s a lot more you could do. You can’t prepare for your viva in a hurry. Thirty minutes by itself won’t be enough…

…but thirty minutes regularly will do it.

Annotation Helps

One of the best reasons to annotate your thesis is to make things stand out. For example:

  • Highlight key references and how you’ve used them;
  • Underline your typos for easier correction later;
  • Draw attention to jargon and specialist terms;
  • Draw attention to key passages of your thesis;
  • Highlight the parts you’re most proud of.

Annotation is purposeful work while you’re doing it; afterwards you have a more useful resource for your prep and the viva.

You can make your thesis clearer while you get ready for the viva. Start by asking yourself, “What would help me?”

Three Simple Hows For Viva Prep

On this blog and in my workshops I share a lot of viva prep ideas. No-one needs to follow all of my suggestions: my hope is that the ideas I share spark a path forward. The danger, sometimes, on being presented with lots of options, is that someone might think “I want to do it all!” or “I need to do it all!” or “Oh my gosh, how will I do it all?!”

I spend a lot of time talking and writing about all of the ideas for viva prep; today let me shift gears to give three questions I think can help anyone break down what they will do to prepare for their viva.

Three simple “how” questions:

  1. How much do you need to do?
  2. How much time do you have?
  3. How will you arrange it all?

Focus on you. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. There are lots of options but only a few core areas to pay attention to.

Don’t make your viva prep complicated. Just ask three questions to get started.